by Jozefina Cutura and Hope Lozano-Bielat
- USA -
Kristina was at Google before the Internet giant became a household name. She worked as a training specialist for six years, taking pride in her job and enjoying Google’s famously easy-going environment. But with the economy tanking, her division froze hiring, even though the workload kept increasing.
Kristina is not alone. The economic crisis has affected most Americans in some way. The country is facing rising unemployment, layoffs, home foreclosures, loan defaults, dwindling lines of credit, and the loss of life savings. Billionaire, philanthropist and investor Warren Buffett has likened the situation to an "economic Pearl Harbor," and economists warn that the crisis is far from over.
But crisis also spawns opportunity. While millions have suffered negative consequences, one positive outcome might be the chance to redefine women’s role in the workforce. Kristina seized her opportunity. “If the recession was a good enough reason for my employer to increase my workload, it was also a motivating factor for me to change a situation that was becoming unbearable,” she says.
Many others seem to agree. A recent survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that almost three quarters of respondents see redundancy as an opportunity to exit corporate life and make a new start.
Kristina is only one of many American women whose work situation has changed. The latest economic figures signal a growing gender shift: As unemployment has risen, men have made up the majority of layoffs. According to the latest unemployment figures, 82% of recent job losses have befallen men. This is mainly because men are over-represented in distressed industries like manufacturing and construction. Women tend to be employed in areas like education and health care, which are less sensitive to economic shifts.
As the stock market has plummeted, women have slowly assumed new economic roles, with many women becoming the main income earners in their family. A growing number of professionally qualified women who "opted out" of work in times of prosperity are now "opting in" to supplement their partners' income. If current trends continue, women will soon surpass men as the majority of those in the labor force for the first time in American history.
But these increased burdens are taking their toll. A survey by the American Psychological Association found that women are more likely than men to report stress related to the current economic climate. Not only are more of them becoming primary breadwinners, but they still have to cope with continued pay inequity and the greater burden of child care and care for the elderly.
For Kristina, the additional stress impacted more than just her personal relationships - it also began to affect her health. “I was thinking about leaving for a while. I stayed because I still enjoyed what I did, and because Google was a great employer. Once that balance shifted, it was time to move on,” she says.
The desire for a better work-life balance is a universal struggle for many women. Kristina’s choice to leave her job is symbolic of a generational shift in attitudes of a workforce segment that values a more meaningful personal and professional life, rather than just a high-flying career - even in a recession.
Kristina resigned from her job in March. “I was lucky to have started at Google early enough to have stock money and can afford not to work for a while,” she says. For the time being, she is not worried about finances.
But many other women don't have the same luxury. They have bills, mortgages, and children's tuition to worry about. For many of them, the long-term implications of this workforce shift will be profound.
This was certainly the case in past recessions. Even though men accounted for a net 72-100% of the jobs cut in the last four cyclical economic declines, women filled 51-59% of the jobs as employment returned to pre-recession peak levels, as pointed out in the Monthly Labor Review. The employment of men eventually recovered, but women's increased role in the workforce helped reshape their roles at home and at work.
The current crisis could produce similar changes. Already, there has been plenty of self-examination in the financial industry and the role gender might have played in the crisis. Banks, hedge funds and other financial organizations are male-dominated. So are the regulators assigned to oversee the financiers. Research from the University of California Berkeley has shown that men tend to feel more overconfident in their financial decisions. As a result, they trade 45% more than women. This risky behavior reduces their net returns by 2.65 percentage points per year, compared to 1.72 percentage points for women. Burned by the financial meltdown and men's role in it, countries such as Iceland have handed the reins of two major banks and even the post of Prime Minister to women.
Finance is only one of many industries where change is in order. After all, even though women have broken many barriers, certain inequalities remain entrenched. American women have made some impressive advances in education and at work. They currently hold 49.1% of the jobs in the United States and are the majority of college graduates, according to government statistics. And in big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Dallas young educated women who work full-time have bypassed men in their earnings.
But women’s jobs are more likely to be part-time, and they are less likely to have benefits such as health insurance. Moreover, women still earn only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men on average, and they rarely hold upper management and executive positions in major companies. This disparity is being acutely felt in the current economic environment, as more women have become the main breadwinners.
As companies restructure and reposition themselves amidst a changing economy, some are looking to better address these continued gender imbalances. And other companies have already begun making targeted investments in women.
In 2008, Goldman Sachs launched 10,000 Women, an initiative to provide business and management education to 10,000 underserved female entrepreneurs around the world. Operational in 16 countries, the program is designed to foster economic growth by tapping the often-underleveraged potential of women. “Economic research from the World Bank, Goldman Sachs and others is conclusive,” says Dina Habib Powell, managing director and Global Head of Corporate Engagement at Goldman Sachs, “Investing in women leads to real economic growth and social progress.”
Kristina hopes to never have to return to the regular corporate world where she feels that being female was a challenge. “I felt that as a single woman, my manager and peers had different expectations of me. Since I didn’t have children to take care of, it was expected that I’d continue to work at night,” she says. These challenges, coupled with the stress of the layoffs and increased workload, pushed Kristina out of a job she once loved. And she doesn’t plan on looking for another job. "I'm removing myself from the job market entirely," she says. Using her savings, she plans to travel and settle down in a country where the cost of living is lower. Later on, she’d like to start her own company or do freelance consulting using the skills she acquired at Google.
The recession was just the push Kristina needed to make a courageous choice. Many other women are also finding that hard times are a perfect opportunity for bold transitions.
This article contains condensed material from the authors' upcoming book
by the same name. – Ed.
About the Authors
Jozefina Cutura works on gender issues for the World Bank and has published on the subject widely. Her short stories have appeared in literary journals and she is currently working on a novel centered around a small town in Bosnia. She has co-authored several books on gender inequalities, and published profiles of businesswomen in Africa, Asia and Europe. Jozefina earned her B.A. in International Relations from Stanford University and a Master's degree in Public Policy from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Hope Lozano-Bielat is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Boston University, focusing on Comparative Politics and International Relations. Hope is interested in religious freedom, women’s human rights, and conflict resolution in post-Communist Eastern Europe. She holds a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pennsylvania. Hope has co-authored and contributed to publications on religion, gender and public policy through the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.